Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 Reviews
I miss thinking of myself as a musician. I did, once, though I've never taken piano lessons. I play a little piano, but I studied viola for many years and dabbled in several other instruments as well. Until college, making music was an inherent part of who I was; why that changed is a long and painful story that isn't relevant here. What matters is that, in days long ago, I made music, and that makes me part of the intended audience for a documentary such as this. Not everyone is. You have to really care about either pianos or manufacturing, I think, and not a lot of people do. I suppose you could just really like documentaries, but that is probably even more rare than being interested in how things are made. This is, at its heart, about what goes on behind the making of music. I won't say that any one thing is the hard part; in my opinion, it's all a lot harder than people think. But this is the less glamorous part.
As Nathan Rabin put it, what we basically have here is an infomercial for Steinway. Slow and methodical, of course, but that's what it is. We start with trees in the Alaskan wilderness and go from there to Queens, New York--a bit of a change. Rather than focus on the varied range of Steinway pianos, this is about the creation of a single one. It is about what it takes to go from, well, trees in the Alaskan wilderness to Carnegie Hall. (Practice, as anyone could tell you.) There are interviews with famous pianists, presumably to keep things interesting, but there is a great deal more focus on the ordinary people who go in to work in a factory every day and make really beautiful musical instruments which will go on to be played by some of the biggest names in the musical world. The factory workers may or may not ever attend Carnegie Hall--if they don't, it's purely out of lack of interest, not cost--but the pianos they make may be played there and in other fine venues the world around.
One of the things which was interesting to me about the documentary was that is showed as aspect to instrument-purchase that I don't think most people realize is a thing. When I was in high school and could be reasonably believed to have grown as much as I was going to, my Christmas-and-birthday present one year (honestly, I don't remember for sure if it was eighth or ninth grade) was a new viola. In previous years, I had gotten my older sister's hand-me-down, and her first two violas had been cheap used ones. But a nearly grown-up deserved an instrument all her own. And here's the thing--Mom was allowed by the music store (presumably, there were deposits and things involved, but I don't know) to bring home three different instruments for me to try out. Now, my viola--and I still have it--is nowhere near as well made or expensive as a Steinway; my viola was probably mass produced. However, even mass produced instruments vary in tone, and here, we see musicians trying out pianos.
Of course, they don't get to take them home; I glanced at the Steinway website earlier, and it very discreetly doesn't tell you how much the instruments cost. I then looked it up on the website of a store which deals in new and used pianos in New York, and all I can say is, for $30,000, they could maybe throw in a bench every time. These pianos are luxury items. Even if I could afford a Steinway grand, I don't have anywhere to put it. And perhaps by focusing on the working-class people who build the instruments, the documentary lets us forget a little that this is a seven-foot-long chunk of wood and metal that costs more than most new cars. What got me to look into this in the first place was the sight of a family buying a Steinway. The son looked to be about the age I was when I got my viola, and their income, while higher than ours was at the time, did not seem to be in the range of, say, Harry Connick, Jr, who also appears in the film.
Still, I found the whole thing fascinating for reasons beyond the fond memories of childhood anything to do with the backstage side of music triggers in me. I also think that more people should know about the hard parts of music, sure, but it's also nice to see something handcrafted. The people in this movie are clearly taking pride in their workmanship. They have nothing but disdain for the companies which even just computer-tune their pianos. Yes, I would have liked a little more of the history of the company. I'm sure it's a rich and varied one, but I don't know much of anything about it. Another person on this site refers to it as a factory tour, and there's that, too. I'll admit I'd prefer the actual tour inasmuch as I am fond of the feel of a piano and would love the opportunity to test one out, bad a pianist as I am. But the important aspect of a piano is the sound, as Steinway & Sons has known for a very long time now, and this at least helps you see why their pianos sound as good as they do. Whether you can afford one or not.
some great bits from marcus roberts, lang lang, harry connick jr. and pierre-laurent aimard.
best moment was when the family bought the steinway for the son and the grandfather got to hear him play - very old world and moving.